Liverpool Walked the Title 30 Years Ago but Never Bullied Manchester United

Liverpool Walked the Title 30 Years Ago but Never Bullied Manchester United

Sunday, 16 December, 2018 - 06:30
Bryan Robson scores for United at Anfield. Photograph: PA
London- Steven Pye
Even during Liverpool’s decade of dominance, their record against Manchester United was relatively poor. The two great rivals met 20 times in the league in the 1980s yet Liverpool won just two of those encounters. Half of their league matches in the decade ended in draws, with one of their more memorable battles taking place on Easter Monday in 1988.

United arrived at Anfield on 4 April 1988 in second place but the team above them were in a league of their own. Eleven points clear of their Manchester rivals (having played two games fewer), Liverpool had started the 1987-88 season with a 29-match unbeaten run in the league. Ian Rush had gone to Italy but his departure had no discernible effect on Kenny Dalglish’s side.

Boosted by the sublime form of John Barnes, Peter Beardsley, Ray Houghton and John Aldridge, it was a case of when, not if, Liverpool would clinch the title. They had lost two of their last three matches – at Everton and Nottingham Forest – but there was little concern as United set about succeeding where no other team had won in the league all season. Naturally, Alex Ferguson was not willing to throw in the towel. “Victory would leave eight points between us and they could get a bit nervous,” said the Manchester United manager, his early attempt at mind games looking a little unconvincing.

Ferguson did improve United’s fortunes during his first full season in charge, but he had his hands full attempting to build his first great team. The arrivals of Brian McClair and Steve Bruce would pay dividends in the years to come, but with Norman Whiteside, Paul McGrath and Jesper Olsen apparently wanting to leave Old Trafford, Ferguson obviously had a big job ahead of him.

Played on a sunny Bank Holiday Monday, the match contained all the ingredients of a classic 1980s clash between the two clubs. There was a fantastic atmosphere; the tackles flew in; Liverpool played some sublime football; and Manchester United, unbeaten at Anfield since Boxing Day 1979, continued their fine form in the fixture.

Martin Searby was fully justified when he open his match report in the Times with these words: “It would be difficult to conceive of a game more filled with passion, pace, skill and commitment than that provided by the two sides at the top of the first division at Anfield yesterday.” Watching the YouTube highlights is a must.

United got off to the ideal start. McClair and Peter Davenport benefitted from a Gary Gillespie mistake in the third minute, allowing the latter to set up Bryan Robson for the opener. Shortly after, United’s skipper left a marker on Nigel Spackman, the first of many robust tackles on a fiery afternoon.

As the challenges continued to fly in, Liverpool gradually grew into the match, equalising after 38 minutes as Beardsley superbly collected a Houghton pass before firing past Chris Turner. Aldridge missed a good chance before Gillespie nodded Liverpool in front just before the break, as United rocked under the increased pressure.


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Liverpool’s dominance continued into the second half, with Steve McMahon firing a stunning long-range effort past Turner just two minutes after the break to give Liverpool a 3-1 lead. United were simply swamped. Mick Duxbury and Bruce continued to hurl themselves into tackles as the tension grew; the introduction of Whiteside hardly helping to lower the simmering temperature of the occasion.

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United seemed to be unravelling when Colin Gibson was sent off in the hour. Already booked for kicking the ball away, Gibson received his marching orders for upending Steve Nicol. 3-1 down, and reduced to ten men against the champions elect, surely there was no way back.

The visitors were definitely going to go down fighting, though. “Manchester United seem to be in danger of losing their discipline completely,” stated John Motson as Whiteside left McMahon in a crumpled heap, and later cracked Barnes in the face. Whiteside would later get a taste of his own medicine, though, as Spackman took him out late in an attack that would eventually lead to Olsen hitting the crossbar.

Somehow United worked their way back into the match. A deflected Robson strike after 66 minutes sowed a seed of doubt, and when Davenport’s brilliant turn and pass set Gordon Strachan through on goal in the 78th minute, amazingly the ten men were level. Strachan grinned widely, puffing on an imaginary cigar in front of The Kop; fortunately, social media outrage was not a thing in 1988.

Delighted with the 3-3 draw, Ferguson let rip post-match. “I can now understand why teams come away from here choking on their own vomit and biting their tongues knowing they have been done by the referee,” Ferguson commented. “I’m not getting at this referee. The whole intimidating atmosphere and the monopoly Liverpool have enjoyed for years gets to them eventually.”

On hearing Ferguson’s remarks during a radio interview, Dalglish, carrying his six-week-old daughter Lauren, decided to add more fuel to the fire. “You might as well talk to my daughter,” Dalglish said. “You will get more sense out of her.” Naturally this was not well received by Ferguson, who promptly told his compatriot to go away, or words to that effect. The battle lines between the pair had been well and truly drawn.

Days after the match, the debate went on regarding Ferguson’s comments. His theory had support from former referee Clive Thomas and QPR manager Jim Smith, although many others disagreed, including David O’Leary, Alan Ball, Lennie Lawrence and Alvin Martin. Either way, the 3-3 draw at Anfield is a match that encapsulates how breathtaking football could be in the 1980s. Two sets of players, committed to the cause, playing in front of a 43,497 crowd that were fully absorbed in what was unfolding before their eyes.

It was also another example of how well United competed with their more successful neighbours during this period. Liverpool had the superior team yet, even on a day when the visitors had the odds stacked against them, somehow United found a way.


(The Guardian)

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